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The Ventura Story of Moving People

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Ventura Bus in Como Parade West, Mentone c1950. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society.

Today the buses of the Ventura fleet are a familiar sight over the eastern and south eastern suburbs of Melbourne but the company began in more humble circumstances.

Henry (Harry) Wilson Cornwall was born in Gembrook in 1896 and enlisted in the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Mechanical Transport Company in 1916. He served his time in the United Kingdom, France and Italy and when the war ended, spent time in Ventura, California before returning to Australia in 1920. He started a grazing property in Grafton, NSW then returned to Melbourne and drove buses for Track & Kintrack in St Kilda, Victoria. It was during this time that Harry recognised an opportunity to provide transport to Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs. When his employer refused to consider running vehicles to what then was virtual bushland, Harry decided to go out on his own.

On 24 December 1924 Harry purchased a 14 seater Reo for Ł816 and placed it on the multiple operated route between Box Hill and the City Six years later, he applied to operate between Box Hill and Mentone, a route which traversed dirt tracks linking semi-rural areas. This route continues to be one of the company’s major passenger services.

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Replica of the 1924 Reo at Mentone, 2012. Courtesy Jean Lapthorne, City of Kingston Kingston Collection.

Harry met his future wife, Myra Lucy Hammond, when she was a regular passenger working at the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum on Warrigal road (now the Kingston Centre), They married in 1932 and had five children, Ral, Bev, Geoff, Ken and Peter. At this time the company operated from a service station on the corner of Station Street and Canterbury Road, Box Hill and during the 1940s from a small depot on Beach Road, Mentone. Before his marriage in 1932, Harry lived at the Mentone Hotel. He had lost his leg to diabetes yet continued to drive, suffering a small setback when his room was broken into one Saturday night and both his takings for the day and his wooden leg were stolen.

Realising the limitations of these two locations and quick to seize on opportunities, Harry purchased land at the corner of Centre and Warrigal Roads, Oakleigh, leasing it to a cousin who operated it as a tip until it was finally developed into a modern depot in 1957.

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Warrigal Road intersection with Centre Road, 1950. Courtesy Peter Dack, City of Kingston Kingston Collection.

During this period, profits from the routes were entirely dependent on the operator’s good service to the passengers. When Harry Cornwall forged a link between the suburbs of Box Hill and Mentone they were semi rural settlements connected by sandy and swampy tracks. Flooded creeks, detours to avoid washed out bridges and shocking road surfaces were all part of the hazards of being a bus operator. In a desire to better serve his passengers and establish a business, Harry gradually improved the quality of his vehicles to cope with growing traffic demands.

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Warrigal Road, Moorabbin, Ventura bus travelling north, 1950. Courtesy Peter Dack, City of Kingston Kingston Collection.

The 40s and 50s were decades of consolidation for the company. National security regulations, freezing of chassis and parts, reduced bus services and fuel restrictions led to the vehicles being fuelled by charcoal gas producers. Whilst other operators were having difficulty in find good supplies of charcoal, Harry established Ventura’s own charcoal kilns in the Gippsland district. So successful was this venture that several other essential users were supplied from this source.

In 1950 Harry became ill and passed away in 1952. Faced with the choice of selling either the family farm in Gippsland or the bus business, Myra Cornwall, with the support of executors Ross Watson and Bill Hurley, made the decision to keep Ventura in the Cornwall family. Ross was appointed Chairman and Myra and Bill became Directors, guiding the company through the next twenty years. Prior to Harry’s death, Alan Clarke, previously of Yallourn Passenger service, had been appointed as General Manager. Alan, along with several long term employees of Ventura, led the company into an active period of expansion and acquisition.

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Junction of Warrigal Road with Nepean Highway at Mentone, 1950. Courtesy Peter Dack, City of Kingston Kingston Collection.

In the period between 1952 and 1969, the company purchased Clarinda Transport, High Street Road Bus Service and Knibbs Bus Service, and expanded boundaries to encompass a service between Blackburn and Clayton and the developing Waverley and East Burwood districts. In 1957 the depot at South Oakleigh was opened.

In 1965 Ted Holzgrefe took over as General Manager and oversaw the closure of the Box Hill depot and the opening of a new depot in Mahoney’s Road, East Burwood. Ted held the General Manager’s position until 1969 when Harry’s son Ken joined the company. Ken, his wife Mary and Sons John, Geoff and Andrew played a significant part in the company’s future development.

Ken spent the next 28 years steering the company through good times and bad. By the time of his death in 1997, the company had gained 14 more routes and 87 more vehicles. His commitment to passenger comfort and safety led to Ventura being one of the first Victorian operators to introduce low floor vehicles. Ken’s sound management and pioneering ideas on fleet standardisation, bus route review and employee training provided a strong base for growth.

In 1969 the Mitcham area routes were purchased from C Young and in 1970 Boronia Bus Lines was acquired. Nine Bedford buses and 122 route services were acquired. This was probably Ventura’s biggest investment at the time into a developing area and the services were operating at a loss at the time of the take-over. Ken negotiated with the Government and received a special subsidy to maintain these services. The services were dramatically reorganised with the opening of Knox City shopping Centre. With through routing and deletion of poorly patronised services the routes were reduced to six efficient and profitable services.

Faced with the need to continue expanding into new growth areas Ken devised a way to increase Ventura’s fleet with minimal cost. The company purchased second hand vehicles, refurbished them and in some cases reduced the body size to conform with Government regulations. For around $6000 these vehicles could be put into service and do the same jog as a new vehicle priced at $24,000.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the St6ate Government having difficult in keeping subsidy levels in line with inflation. Fares became fixed and industry profits became increasingly scarce. In 1983 the Government went further in its efforts to control the industry, collecting all revenue and paying operators their costs a month in advance. Whilst initially this worked well, a change in policy led to the government refusing to pay capital related costs and putting a moratorium on bus replacement.

Ken found that standardising the fleet and purchasing more Leylands helped get them over this difficult period and managed to continue expanding boundaries in the eastern and south eastern suburbs.

In 1988 land was purchased at Knoxfield and by November 1989 the fleet had outgrown the premises at Mahoney’s road. The purchases of Bentleigh Bus Lines, Rennies Bus Services, Willis Bus Services and Hawthorn Bus Services in 1987 meant a new, custom built depot was urgently required. The East Burwood depot was vacated and the company’s fleet of 162 vehicles was located 73 at Oakleigh and 89 at Knoxfield.

In 1990 contracts between private operators and the Government were put to competitive tender including a provision for bus replacement. This created its own problems with several of Ventura’s routes under threat. After long negation, Ventura retained the majority of its routes and has continued to expand.

Meanwhile the relationship between private bus operators and the Department of Infrastructure strengthened significantly. Ten year contracts were signed, allowing for long term planning by operators and a better quality of service for passengers.

In 1997 Ventura and the bus industry suffered a great loss when Ken Cornwall passed away at the age of 62. Ken’s youngest son, Andrew took over the position of Managing Director determined to follow in the steps of his father and grandfather with sound management, fleet standardisation and informed diversification.

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Passengers boarding a Ventura bus in Mentone Parade, Mentone 1987. Photographer Bruce Dinan, Courtesy City of Kingston Leader Collection.

References

  1. Abridged with permission from The Ventura Story 75 Years of Moving People.

Category: Did You Know?
Reference Number: 583
Date Created: 7/10/2013
Date Revised:

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